(Although I posted about R. Halbertal’s piece earlier this week, I noticed that many readers did not click on the link to his Hebrew article there, thereby missing out on the full flavor and power of the piece. Since I believe it reflects well, to a great degree, the viewpoint of the Ashkenazic tradition in general, as well as the Litvishe way, and is therefore worthy of wider dissemination, I decided to attempt an English rendering of it, which follows. It is not an authorized translation in consultation with R. Halbertal, so I cannot claim to have captured his every point and nuance, but I think it conveys his message, generally speaking.
Note: Some of the phenomena that R. Halbertal is reacting to may not be familiar to readers who have not been to Meron, as well as readers in the diaspora, so please keep that in mind before jumping to conclusions.)
In recent years, there is developing and spreading a phenomenon that sees in the Lag Baomer celebrations a מצוה גדולה (great mitzvah), which is almost obligatory. The day is not far when people will be embarrassed if they did not take part in the pilgrimage to the tomb of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, and the celebrations surrounding it. All this with great support and backing, along with strong promotion, from the secular and religious media.
I do not come, חלילה, to damage the old traditions of ascending to the kever and kindling lights and praying there. However, in recent years, the phenomenon has gotten out of hand, exceeding its actual importance and proper boundaries.
Relating to such a phenomenon requires introspection regarding the position of גדולי ישראל, the great leaders of the Jewish people, with regard to it. In one of his talks, Rav Schach remarked that the Lag Baomer celebrations are not a ‘great mitzvah’ – that the Chazon Ish was very meticulous in his pursuit of mitzvos, and if it was such a great mitzvah he would have been pursued it, and ascended to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai himself. Rav Elyashiv as well, was asked a great many times about it, especially in the later years, with the growth of the phenomenon. His response was given in various formulations, such as ‘I was never there’, ‘Rav Shimon (Bar Yochai) is in the Mishnah’, and so on.
And if the Chazon Ish, Rav Schach, Rav Elyashiv, Roshei Yeshivos, and many other gedolim, saw in Lag Baomer a day to be emphasized with a strengthening of Torah learning, can we know better than they? What is all the great streaming to Meron, and the multiplicity of ceremonies, that lack commonality with the world of these paramount leaders, who shaped the way of Torah and the world of Yeshivos in the land of Israel?
The coarseness that surrounds the day threatens the centrality of Torah learning
One can say that the great drift and the developing trend surrounding the day, that sees the celebration of Lag Baomer at the tomb of Rashbi as an obligatory commandment, stems in great measure from the fact that the chiloni (non orthodox) public, which seeks Jewish identity without properly finding it, finds it proper to perform commandments according to the inclinations of their emotions, which do not stem from a sense of obligation.
Similarly, the ease of traveling there, and the many ‘tikkunim’ that are performed for many problems there, encourage and contribute to the phenomenon. The various media contribute to the development of the phenomenon, directly or indirectly, by way of extended and detailed descriptions of the celebrations of the day, and interviews with public personalities and Rabbis who proclaim great importance to the ascent to the tomb and related matters.
The vulgarity that surrounds the various circles of the religious public at these celebrations threatens the centrality of Torah learning, and the understanding that that is the true will of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, rather than the transformation of the day to a full day of celebration and partying, that is not accepted by the recorders of oral traditions, and transmitters of our tradition.
I write all this because, it seems to me, that people have even ceased to talk about it.